Friday, August 08, 2014

Arrest of Canadian couple on meaningless charges in China is a test for Stephen Harper

Canadians Kevin Garratt and Julia Dawn Garratt were arrested in Dandong, China earlier this week on charges of espionage, specifically "stealing state secrets about China’s military and national defence research". Dandong is on the other side of the Yalu River from North Korea and the Garratts have been fairly open about both their faith and about their desire to both help North Koreans, so it's reasonable to assume that they're guilty of something after 30 years in China, though it's hard to see how coffee shop owners in what is a Chinese backwater could be guilty of anything else.

The Garratts look destined for the Chinese legal system. About the only nice thing you can say about the Chinese legal system is that it's quick, astonishingly quick even. You could maybe also tack on the charge of punishments being severe, though that probably only applies as vengeance in the case of a powerful person convicted of a crime. Although the Garratts are officially detained, detention can last for up to 37 days before a formal arrest is made and to be detained sounds the same as being arrested in a free country. To be charged is to be convicted, with only 825 of the 1.16 million people charged last year being acquitted in a Chinese courtroom, a conviction rate of 99.93%.

Trials, even for important people facing serious charges, last a day or two, are conducted in secrecy and don't offer things like a chance to view the evidence against you, to recant confessions obtained under duress, or for the accused to cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses.

Espionage is one of many vague charges that exist in China as political weapons for the Communist Party. The analysis in the National Post article I linked above is fairly accurate. China is, as cliche as it sounds, bolstering its own state at the expense of outsiders. The Garratt's out-of-nowhere arrest is comparable for the equally sudden, arbitrary investigation into Microsoft over anti-trust practices that was recently begun in China. Also around the same time was the announcement that Ilham Tohti, an Uyghur professor who was a modest critic of the Chinese state, was being charged with separatism, one of many anti-state crimes punishable by death in China.

I raise Tohti's case not because it's related to the Chinese state targeting foreigners, but because it shows the sort of charges that exist and are regularly laid in China, without much of a basis, because the state has no one to respond to. China is remarkably good, unlike other countries that open their mouth and create controversy, at simply not answering questions, or providing amazingly empty non-answers that sound like answers. It is amazingly opaque.

My brother once asked me if China has ever explained why websites such as YouTube and Twitter are blocked. I replied that to my knowledge it hasn't, but I remembered an exchange between a foreign reporter and a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson in 2009 where the spokesperson was directly asked, twice, whether YouTube was blocked in China and responded with an astonishing blizzard of legalese, referencing six US federal laws but being unable to answer this simple question.

In other such instances, the spokesperson has referred the reporter to the "relevant authorities" (this bureaucratism is so popular that it spawned a Twitter account parodying the Chinese government, which was met with the highest praise, a sharp denunciation from the People's Daily), who of course would never deign to answer phone calls from a foreign reporter, thus accomplishing the twin functions of allowing the foreign ministry to seem as though it answered the question of the foreign reporter while absolutely refusing to answer the question in any way whatsoever. That China loves the word 'relevant' and uses it at every chance is clear. Look at the statement released by the Chinese embassy on the initial accusations of spying.

 As a number of reports have noted, to be an openly Christian foreigner in Dandong, a city that directly borders North Korea, is to be watched. China watches everything and anything that could be remotely considered suspicious. Activists and dissidents are, of course, routinely watched and either prevented from traveling somewhere or sometimes forced to travel somewhere on what is roughly the equivalent of giving a Washington activist a free trip to Hawaii in advance of a session of Congress opening up. Even run-of-the-mill Jehovah's Witnesses are watched in Beijing.

The opaque, authoritarian attributes of the state, combined with its increasing boldness in resisting international norms and international pressure means that China can consider bizarre actions like arresting a pair of probable missionaries on grave charges of espionage, when the more probable outcome for proselytism is deportation, as a direct response to being publicly embarrassed by the Canadian government for hacking into the computers of the National Research Council, the latest in a long string of such accusations by foreign organizations.

The sad news for the Garratts is that there's no guarantee China will back down from the serious charges in this case. A somewhat analogous case is that of Stern Hu, an executive from Australian mining company Rio Tinto. After Rio Tinto rejected a bid by a Chinese firm to double its stake in the company, Hu and a few other Chinese employees of the company were charged with bribery and corporate espionage. Hu, an Australian citizen, received ten years in prison after a closed trial. China previously executed a mentally ill British man for drug smuggling in 2009.

Being a foreigner is no protection from being given a full tour of the Chinese legal and penal system and, as the National Post mentions, power (and being a Westerner is a sort of power in China) is no protection whatsoever when an example needs to be made. If anything, it's a liability, as evidenced by the recent arrest of former Politburo member and security cheaf Zhou Yongkang, as well as the life sentence given to the highly-popular politician Bo Xilai. In a country as corrupt as China (Beijing is probably ten times as poor as Washington but probably has more Audi A6's), the public trial and humiliation of powerful figures serves to create at least the impression of impartial justice.

Finally, this is red meat for Conservatives. The Conservative government over the past decade has made it a point to delineate Canadian, Western values as a distinct group of ideas that are worth defending against those who apparently don't believe in either those values or the sort of things that they represent. The Conservative government has given a more prominent role to the monarchy. It is a strong supporter of Israel. It strongly supported Ukraine against Russia. It's not that I necessarily disagree with these things, but in many ways, the Harper government has a traditionalist world view that embraces religion, democracy, free markets and makes a distinction between those who don't embrace these things.

It was no surprise that Harper took a long time to visit China, received a public rebuke from premier Wen Jiabao for not having visited sooner, and served one right back at Wen for not visiting himself. This is a great chance for Harper, who has wanted a strong military and taken a strong stance against things he didn't like, to try and somehow get the Garratts home. What's more likely to succeed, though, is a softer, or at least quieter approach that allows the Chinese government room to reduce the charges without embarrassment. The likely outcome here is a prison sentence of some length, but a show of strength by the Canadian government will need to be met by one by the Chinese government, which is likely what produced the initial charges.

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